SciFi · Speculative

Station Eleven

This one has been on my list longer than I care to admit, considering that I just now have gotten around to it. And I mean, it’s not like I’m not reading books as fast as possible over here, but I still have to say, I regret it taking so long to get to this one. It’s been hyped for years, like not just the “exciting new release and then we forget about it a month later” hype, so perhaps I should have known. But regardless, I am here to tell you that it lives up to the hype.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Photo location: Cup a Joe (Hillsborough, NC). And I should have gotten the artist’s information, but I forgot and I feel terrible about that and now the monthly installation is already updated…

“I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.”

“Survival is insufficient.”

Station Eleven is pretty much an apocalypse story. But in the most high-literature-possible way. It centers around Kirsten Raymonde, originally from Toronto, but now a permanent member of the Traveling Symphony (and also acting troupe) traveling around the area that used to be the northern mid-west states in the US…before the Georgian Flu epidemic that wiped out something like 99% of the Earth’s population. When the Symphony arrives in the “town” St. Deborah by the Water, they cross paths with a violent “prophet” who threatens the peaceful existence of the troupe. As the story progresses, we follow a few main characters between past and present, watching the unfolding of their pre-flu lives, the unraveling of the world post-epidemic, and the slow rebuild since then, all bringing us towards the story’s conclusion, where were learn how each of these stories are intertwined with each other.

For all that this is, very clearly, an “end of the world” story, it is also a fictional and literary masterpiece. And I have to say, that’s a mix of descriptions that I can’t say I’ve ever read or experienced like this before. I mean, I have a ton of favorite scifi/fantasy, that are awesome and well-written and stunningly beautiful, but none that, while reading, I felt like I could legit classify as “classic” lit at the same time as apocalyptic. Fascinating. Since I started with that, I’ll segue into talking about the writing itself. Bottom line, it’s gorgeous. The precision of language and exquisiteness of each turn of phrase is so finely crafted, on par with such favorites as Madeleine Miller’s Circe or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (in fact, this was very reminiscent of Oryx and Crake, but definitely not in a way that is too similar, just in the way that, if you liked that, you will definitely be into this book). It’s just wonderfully vivid and evocative – this book is all about feels and atmosphere and the writing delivers.

As far as the plot is concerned, the interplay of connections and references among times/characters/stories is done with a subtlety and finesse that makes you almost proud when you recognize them. And the changes in narration between past and present, the switches in focal point from one character to another, are done in perfect timing to reveal small, meaningful connections among them, but without giving too much away too quickly. This deliberate pace in the unfolding of the plot and connections plays in perfect juxtaposition with the speed of the collapse of the world. Honestly, this look at the end of the world through small details – a paperweight, a self-published comic book series, a quarantined plane, small tattoos of knives on a wrist – that would be completely overlooked by most, provides a definite intimacy and familiarity to a story that is normally approached from a large-scale, impersonal, point of view. It gives the reader a chance to look closely at the humanity behind a collapse like this, and the progression of reactions in a myriad of situations, instead of brushing past that piece and jumping into the dystopia afterwards. I love how realistic this is, the limited scope of each story/POV, because one would only know their own story/experience (and sometimes not even that) in a world that has lost all communication and recognizability. And I love that it allows the reader to see that, even at the end of the world, the small things that make life matter are no different than they are now – it’s a very compelling message.

I finished this book almost surprised to have read such an insightful exploration of the human condition. It sneaks up on you with its nuance and discernment…especially considering the dramaticism (I made up that word because nothing else fit what I wanted to say) of the apocalyptic setting. This book is something special and definitely one that I can tell I will be recommending often.

**One small additional note: I listened to the audiobook and the narrator rocked it – definitely recommend.

9 thoughts on “Station Eleven

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